A Tribute to Owen Edwards

By Nigel Stapley

The gestation of a primarily Welsh-language television channel was long and troubled; the politics, the prejudices, the practicalities were all debated endlessly from the 1950s until a one finally appeared in 1982 - and even that did not stop the debate. One factor in the channel's success and consolidation has tended to be overlooked, and that is the central rôle played by the man who was Sianel Pedwar Cymru (S4C)'s first Chief Executive, Owen Edwards, who died on 31 August 2010, aged 76.

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Given that the channel's establishment was confirmed in the early months of the Thatcher government - when that new régime was full of passionate intensity - one might have expected that the task of getting it on air would have been handed to someone who was regarded by the administration as 'one of us', ideologically speaking. But the storm of protest which the Home Office had had to endure in the aftermath of its initial volte-face over the setting up of a predominantly Welsh-language service (promised in its 1979 manifesto, but backtracked upon within weeks of taking office) had had a sobering effect on even the most committed of the new breed of Conservative ministers. It was the more emollient presence of the veteran William Whitelaw at the Home Office - coupled perhaps with sound advice from junior Welsh Office minister Wyn Roberts, a former broadcaster himself - which led to a more constructive approach being taken.

In the light of that, the appointment of Owen Edwards to lead the new venture was unsurprising, because Edwards combined a number of attributes which would be sorely needed (and tested) in the months and years which lay ahead.

For one thing, he was a safe pair of hands in terms of culture and background if not of politics. He was the son and grandson of two giants of Welsh cultural life. His grandfather, Owen M Edwards, was an author and publisher of books and magazines for children and adults, in addition to being His Majesty's Chief Inspector of Schools for Wales, in which rôle he helped finally to consign the hated and hateful 'Welsh Not' to its deserved oblivion.

Owen M Edwards' son, Ifan ab Owen Edwards, was the founder in 1922 of Urdd Gobaith Cymru (literally, the League of Hope of Wales, but more usually translated as the Welsh League of Youth), a Welsh-language organisation which organises sporting and cultural activities for people under the age of 26, and which currently has over fifty thousand members. Ifan was also instrumental in setting up the first Welsh-medium primary school in Aberystwyth in 1939; a school which started with just seven pupils but which now teaches about three hundred and fifty children - in addition to inspiring similar ventures throughout Wales in subsequent decades.

It was somehow inevitable in view of such an inheritance that Ifan's own son, an Owen like his grandfather, should have a similar sense of vocation and make his own significant mark upon the nation's cultural and social history. Indeed, the young Owen held a number of senior posts in the Urdd before going into broadcasting. But, as aware as he was of the roots from which he sprang, Owen Edwards had his own vision and his own path to follow.

Long before S4C was mooted, he had a long and distinguished record as a broadcaster. He had started out as presenter of Dewch I Mewn ("Come In"), the Welsh-language programme produced and transmitted by Granada Television in the days before commercial television had (officially, at least) come to North Wales. In 1961, he was invited to join BBC Television in Cardiff to present the channel's daily news programme Heddiw, a position which he held for much of that decade; not merely fronting the programme, but reporting for it. His measured, authoritative and sympathetic reporting of the catastrophe at Aberfan in 1966 impressed many, and was compared favourably with the reporting of journalists and interviewers who had been sent up from London to cover the unfolding tragedy.

It was perhaps a surprise, then, when so accomplished and natural a performer in front of the camera decided to move into the administrative arena, becoming firstly Programme Organiser and later Head of Programmes in Cardiff. But the sense of vocation which drove him - probably derived from the nature of his own family's achievements - made him realise that this was where he could do the most good. The natural progression for him was to become Controller of BBC Wales, which position he duly attained in 1974. Under Owen Edwards' leadership, BBC Wales television developed a stronger sense of its own identity, and he was the architect of a substantial expansion of radio broadcasting in both Welsh and English from the few hours a day of opt-outs from Radio Four (a pattern set in the days of its Home Service predecessor) to the establishment of Radio Cymru in January 1977 and Radio Wales in November 1978 as distinct services. He seemed always to be in the right place at the right time to have the right impact.

It was therefore far less surprising when Edwards decided to forego the considerable opportunities for preferment which undoubtedly lay before him at the Corporation - such was the respect in which he was held in London as much as in Cardiff - to draw his bow at the new venture of S4C. For here was a man who had a strong sense of duty (obligation, even) to the culture and the values from which he had arisen, and who saw his leading a project which was entirely in keeping with the spirit of his own upbringing and inheritance as a sort of humble destiny.

Not that his new job was going to be anything other than a constant balancing act. For to say that the new channel was going to be universally welcomed would be a serious error. The issue of Welsh-language television, so divisive for so many years, was not going to be resolved simply by putting all such broadcasting in one place. For every Welsh-speaker who was delighted that they were no longer obliged to keep hours more suited to owls or hedgehogs in order to watch any television in their own language, there were dozens - perhaps hundreds - who didn't have the language and who were glad to be shot of Heddiw, Siôn A Siân and Sêr from their staple diet of BBC and HTV; and just as many more at least who were deeply resentful of so much effort going into establishing a channel for one language when provision in the other was still patchy at best.

There were technical conflicts which would need resolving too. Uniquely in the history of broadcasting in the UK, S4C would broadcast no programmes it itself would originate; rather it would give airtime to programmes provided not only by the local ITV contractor and by the small but hopeful group of independent producers, but also by the BBC itself, at a time when the Corporation's traditional ethos and sense of amour propre were far more in evidence than in subsequent years. In addition, space had to be found in the schedules for most of the output of Channel Four in London, which was to start the day after S4C in November 1982. That this was - in much expanded form - what had been happening for years in order to accommodate Welsh-language programming on the main networks was an irony not lost on some.

Clearly, then, the job of Chief Executive of S4C was going to require the skills of both a diplomat and a pragmatist. Fortunately, in Owen Edwards they had both. Because in both his days before the microphone and in his time in management, he had shown both a strong commitment to doing what he felt was right for the service for which he was responsible, and a reputation for honesty and integrity which gave him a high esteem from his peers, his employees and his rivals. His very recent connections within the BBC would have helped tremendously with the work of assuaging the fears of those within the Corporation about their programmes being placed in amongst product from other, commercial, providers; someone drafted in from the commercial sector to do the job would most certainly have faced greater difficulties in that regard.

He was not always so diplomatic when he perceived that pettifogging rules, territorial defensiveness and - that old bugbear of British broadcasting - demarcation were in danger of compromising his vision. When it became known that Equity objected to the possibility of the singer Trebor Edwards being given his own show because - as a farmer by trade, and a singer only by vocation - he wasn't eligible for membership and could therefore not perform, Edwards harangued the union, saying, "Trebor will have a series of his own on S4C; you try and stop it!". The union backed down.

He was no aloof character, holding himself at a distance from those who worked under him as many broadcasting executives have done before and since. As he had started on the shop floor, he had the highest regard for the talent and potential of his broadcasters and technicians. Not for him the executive dining room; throughout his days at the BBC, he would eat in the canteen with everyone else and would discuss programmes and policies with anyone there who wished, even to the point of taking a junior reporter aside to discuss a small item she had contributed to that morning's news programme. The approach to management which came most naturally to him had always been that of daily engagement with all those who worked with him. The ease with which he got on with people of all types (which had been apparent in his days as a reporter and presenter) was carried effortlessly forward into his dealings within the often strained and frequently Byzantine procedures involved in running a television and radio service.

It was this understanding of people which led him to realise that, if the channel was to be a success - and it is often forgotten that it was originally intended only to be an experiment reviewable after just two years of operation - it would have to win over people with power and influence within the political structures of Wales, in addition to viewers in all parts of Wales irrespective of their language. As Chief Executive, he saw it as central to his job to go out to village halls and other meeting places to promote the station. His highly personal and warm communication style, allied with his reputation for fairness and integrity, made him a highly effective ambassador for the ideals and image of the new service.

Owen Edwards regarded S4C as the pinnacle of his broadcasting career. Here was a new channel, where he and his team had, as he put it, a blank sheet of paper. There were no traditional or established patterns to work from, or to which he had to conform. Not for him the creation of some sort of 'mini-me' of what he had known at the BBC, nor some jury-rigged simulacrum of HTV; it would have to be a new solution to a problem which British broadcasting had never had to tackle before. His vision was that of a channel which would be distinctively Welsh, with a bright, young identity. Most importantly, S4C was to be above all else a television channel, not merely some exercise in advanced socio-cultural engineering.

Six o'clock on 1 November 1982 finally came; all the negotiations, all the hard slog of the small team of executives, were finally coming to fruition. Who else could possibly be the first person to be seen on S4C but the man who had led it into being? Standing in the foyer of S4C's small office and studio complex in Sophia Close, Cardiff, Owen Edwards welcomed viewers to the new service; a quiet pride shone from him as he quoted the old Welsh saying that it was easy to kindle a fire on an old hearth, adding that S4C's aim was to make a bonfire on a completely new hearth. He then handed over to the channel's Chief Announcer Robin Jones - like Edwards, a recruit from the BBC with prior experience at ITV, and another legend of Welsh broadcasting to whom we have had to bid farewell in 2010. After a first showing of Superted (who became something of a mascot for the channel in its early months), we saw a conversation between Edwards and Channel Four's head Jeremy Isaacs, whose station was to open less than twenty-four hours later, from which it was clear that these were two men who had a great respect for one another, and who were passionate about good broadcasting. This was scarcely surprising given that they had started under the legendary Bernsteins at Granada at more or less the same time nearly a quarter of a century before.

And so the 'experiment' was launched. It is true to say that it endured some early trials: some of us young campaigners viewed its content as a bit too 'down home', the comedy a bit too tame and stereotyped, the dramas similarly; whilst others saw some of the channel's output as a dumbing down of their lofty, chapel-bound notions of what Welsh culture was supposed to be. Others felt that the channel's approach was parochial, although the current affairs output alone was evidence for the defence on that score (with journalists such as Russell Isaac reporting from various world flashpoints for the HTV-produced Y Byd Ar Bedwar), let alone bringing highlights of football from Italy and Spain into our living rooms for the first time every week via Sgorio. Such criticisms were always going to be levelled at a channel which had to be all things to all people likely to watch. There were objections from those who found that the timeshifted Channel Four UK programmes were put at - to them - inconvenient hours, at a time long before the coming of satellite and digital terrestrial platforms rendered such things unnecessary. There were also still the detractors who waxed wroth over resources being devoted to a channel whose maximum possible audience was scarcely half a million; and there were still the snide-mongers in the London media particularly (Keith Waterhouse on one notorious occasion, with a Daily Mirror column which referred to 'television for the daft' with little doubt as to what the real target was) who sneered at the whole concept. The scale of the openings offered to the small, Wales-based independent production companies was also (and continues to this day to be) a subject of constant debate and tension.

Nonetheless, with a small but dedicated team at the heart of the channel - a sort of extended family with Owen Edwards as paterfamilias - and a commitment to take Welsh-language broadcasting in new directions as well as building on the quality of pre-S4C programming in news and current affairs, there was little doubt that the two-year experiment would pass its first and most vital test. Apart from the fact that it would have been dynamite (perhaps literally) for the Home Office to have closed the channel, S4C had quickly 'earned its parish' (as we say) as a key part of the cultural life of Wales. That it had done so, and had done so in a very short period of time and with comparatively limited means, was testament to the enthusiasm and determination of those running it, and especially to the man who was its leader and its most public face. He gave the channel a professional credibility that probably no-one else at that time could have provided, and steered it through the occasionally sticky early years of its existence.

It came as a shock, then, that in 1989 Owen Edwards announced his retirement. He was only in his mid-fifties, but had just been diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease, and quite clearly felt that S4C needed someone who was capable of giving everything to the job; something he felt his illness would prevent him from doing in the way that his conscience required him to. He spent the last twenty years of his life living quietly with his family, facing his increasing debility with quiet courage.

None of those who have followed him at the head of Sianel Pedwar Cymru has succeeded in combining the respect in which he was held both within the industry and amongst a wider public with such a reputation for integrity, idealism and determination tempered by a genuine humility. He was a man who filled a crucial position at a crucial time in broadcasting in Wales and although we rightly mourn his passing, it is proper too that we salute and be grateful for an immense contribution to broadcasting in general and to the life of our nation. As the broadcaster and academic Derec Llwyd Morgan put it, "There are some men in every generation who are more significant than the sum of their talents, and I think in his generation Owen Edwards was such a man".

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Article ©2010 Nigel Stapley

Compilation ©2010 Transdiffusion Broadcasting System

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